ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine knew it should have won Friday night’s first-round game in the Dead River Co. Classic.
Rather than let the tough setback demoralize them, the Black Bears instead demonstrated their determination and resolve Saturday afternoon.
UMaine overcame an eight-point deficit in the second half, making its last eight free throws to secure a 58-53 women’s basketball victory over Buffalo in the tournament consolation game at Alfond Arena.
“Overall toughness; I think we made plays at the end,” said UMaine coach Cindy Blodgett. “What I like is we learned from some of our mistakes that we made [Friday] night, which is the trademark of a team that’s growing.”
Tyra Grant scored 11 of her team-high 13 points in the final 12 minutes to lift Penn State to a hard-fought 52-48 victory over Holy Cross in the championship game.
Saturday’s title game was postponed by an hour by a power outage that had Alfond Arena operating on emergency lighting.
Grant was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament and was joined on the all-tourney squad by Penn State teammate Alex Bentley. Other honorees included Kristin Baker of Maine, Bethany O’Dell and Whitney Fremeau of Holy Cross and Kourtney Brown of Buffalo.
UMaine (2-3) refused to fold Saturday against the Bulls (1-4). In contrast to Friday’s game, the Black Bears limited their turnovers (16), executed offensively down the stretch and played strong defense.
UMaine was especially effective in the second half. The hosts limited the Bulls to eight field goals and forced 15 turnovers to rally from a 34-26 deficit with 14 minutes to play.
The effort was built on cohesive defense out of the 1-2-2 matchup zone. The Bears held Buffalo without a field goal for almost 5½ minutes, opening the door for a game-changing, 18-7 scoring run.
UMaine was able to contest the outside shooters while virtually shutting off dribble-penetration and passes into the post.
“I thought that we did a great job having our hands up, getting out on the corners, talking with the guards and the posts,” said senior Katia Bratishko, who came off the bench to anchor the back line and scored eight second-half points. “I think us playing together and talking was the key.”
Sophomore forward Samantha Wheeler scored 12 of her game-high 18 points after intermission to spark the UMaine offense, which shot 44 percent in the second half.
Wheeler, who also contributed six rebounds, three assists, four steals and a blocked shot, tallied six straight UMaine points, including two long jumpers, during the critical surge.
Two free throws and a short jump hook by Bratishko gave the Bears a 44-41 lead with 6:15 remaining.
“We just all really came together and played and executed our offense together really well and that was why we got very good shot opportunities,” Wheeler said.
Nicki Hopkins buried a 3-pointer to draw Buffalo even for the last time, but Corinne Wellington (12 points) and Bratishko scored from down low 32 seconds apart to keep UMaine on top.
The Bears later pushed the advantage to six (52-46) on two more Bratishko foul shots with 1:25 left, then UMaine withstood a final Buffalo run by converting its final six foul shots in the last 59.3 seconds.
“I think the best part of it was when our team was down by eight, our team didn’t cave in, they met the challenge,” Blodgett said.
Baker provided nine points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals in another gritty effort. UMaine scored 26 points as a result of Buffalo’s 26 turnovers and went 17-for-21 from the foul line.
“We turned the ball over,” said Buffalo coach Linda Hill-MacDonald. “It’s just awful. You can’t expect to win the game and turn the ball over 26 times.”
Kourtney Brown led the Bulls with 17 points and eight rebounds. Buffalo outrebounded UMaine 37-35.
The Bears responded after a first half during which they shot 25 percent from the field despite getting some good low-post looks, surrendered eight offensive rebounds and afforded the Bulls four 3-pointers.
“We knew we needed this win and I think that we all just kind of came together,” said UMaine senior Amanda Tewksbury. “It’s a really good confidence-builder for us for the rest of the season.”
UMaine returns to action Saturday at West Virginia.